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Wisconsin Ambulance Safety Inspection Program Comes Under Scrutiny

Caledonia Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Henningfeld thinks the state ambulance inspection program isn't focusing on the most important parts of the ambulance.

Ten years ago, the lives of an ambulance crew in central Wisconsin were changed forever when a balding tire caused their vehicle to lose traction on a wet highway, skid across the median and roll over.

In the resulting accident, the patient being transported died and the crew was injured, none more so than Matt Deicher of Mosinee.

“I flew and hit my face onto the back doors of the ambulance,” Deicher told WISN 12 News.

Deicher was paralyzed. He believes the July 2003 accident could have been prevented "very, very easily."

Just two days earlier, the lone state ambulance inspector gave the Mosinee Fire Department 10 days to replace balding tires on the vehicle. The crew was unaware of the report before the run.

A decade later, not much has changed in the state’s ambulance inspection program. There is still one inspector who travels the entire state, and each ambulance in Wisconsin — those owned by municipal fire departments and those run by private companies — is inspected every other year.

From WISN 12 News: Paralyzed EMT Says Nothing Has Changed

Patch and our media partners at WISN 12 News investigated the state program, reviewing dozens of ambulance inspection reports for 2011 and 2012 for area fire departments. While some concerns were raised about the state inspection program, for the most part, the review found no major problems with the vehicles.

In Caledonia, for example, the Fire Department’s ambulances were inspected in January 2011, and no violations were found. 

Concerns Raised Over State Inspections

But the state ambulance inspection program has come under fire from some, who believe that more should be done to ensure they are safe for both patients and the personnel who transport them.

Those who criticize the current inspection program, overseen by the Wisconsin State Patrol, say the state needs more than one inspector and the vehicles should be inspected more than every other year. While most area fire officials are satisfied with the job the state was doing, others who responded to a Patch survey said the inspections are not as comprehensive as they should be.

Interactive: Compare Caledonia's ambulance fleets to nearby departments

“There should be a more thorough inspection of the body, chassis and powertrain,” Jeffrey Henningfeld, battalion chief for the Caledonia Fire Department, told Patch. “All mechanicals should be subject to a thorough evaluation against measurable standards.”

When asked if the state inspection program was sufficient, Menomonee Falls Fire Chief Jeffrey S. Hevey said: “No.”

“They need more inspectors who not only understand the emergency medical equipment, but they understand the vehicle chassis (brakes, suspension, shocks, tires and electrical),” Hevey said.

Dee Evans, who is the EMS director in the city of Berlin near Oshkosh and was the state inspector from 2001 to 2003, said the state job is “taxing” and just too much for one person.

Evans told Patch that rather than having a single statewide inspector, Wisconsin should use the five geographic districts that are now within the State Patrol, and have three or four part-time inspectors per region.

“Then you’re saving the state on the cost of hotels and lodging,” said Evans. “In the urban districts you may have more people, in the rural districts you would have less.”

Evans also believes inspections should take place annually, which could happen with a more regionalized approach, he said.

State Inspector Says System is ‘Working Rather Well’

Paul Schilling is the state’s lone inspector. Every other year, he performs a half-day, 160-point inspection on every ambulance service provider’s fleet. He puts in serious travel time across the Badger State, and checks both the mechanical and medical equipment on each vehicle.

He told WISN 12 News’ Kent Wainscott that the inspection program is working, and that people shouldn’t be worried that the same guy who kicks the tires is also the one who checks the defibrillators.

“I don't think it should be a concern. I've been doing it for seven years and the process has been great,” Schilling said. “It’s been working rather well.”

Caledonia Officials Weigh In

Henningfeld said lights and sirens need to be inspected, of course, but so do the other systems in an ambulance.

"No one is looking at the structural components which is what makes the ambulance go," he told Patch. 

Annual inspections are needed with additional inspectors who are interested in what's under the hood as well as what's in the back of the rig.

Still, both Henningfeld and Pete Feest, the department's senior mechanic, agree that local fire departments have the primary responsiblity for making sure the ambulance fleet is safe.

"The state inspection program leaves a lot to be desired because there is no accountability for the mechanical systems until something goes wrong."

"Most preventative maintenance and minor repair is accomplished 'in-house' by one of three certified mechanics," Henningfeld answered in Patch's survey. "Major repairs are done through outside vendors based on need."

Feest has been a firefighter in Caledonia for 18 years and the department's senior mechanic for the last nine. He said he takes the maintenance and safety of department apparatus very seriously, and wishes the state would step up its program.

"I am not going to send out a vehicle without it being sound," he said. "But the state inspection program leaves a lot to be desired because there is no accountability for the mechanical systems until something goes wrong."

Once there's an accident serious enough to warrant a closer look, Feest continued, then state officials will want to know the maintenance history of an ambulance.

Feest told Patch that emergency vehicles are exempt from federal Department of Transportation standards. While the driver of a semi or a delivery truck can be spot-checked at any time to be sure the truck has been properly maintained and inspected, state officials only become interested in emergency vehicles if there's an accident, he said.

"The fire department is expected to keep its vehicles in tip-top shape, which we do," he added. "A driver of a semi, for example, better have his inspection form in his truck, but there is nothing like that for ambulances and fire trucks."

Is Age, Mileage an Issue?

Patch surveyed 12 fire departments in the metro Milwaukee area and found that seven of them are operating ambulances that have more than 80,000 miles on them. Three departments — Wauwatosa, Brookfield and Greenfield — have ambulances in their fleet with more than 100,000 miles on them. And at least five of the departments are still running ambulances manufactured the 1990s.

The lifespan for a typical ambulance is three to five years in the “frontline,” and another two to three years in reserve, said Chad Brown, vice president of sales and marketing at Braun Industries, a leading manufacturer of ambulances. For Braun ambulances, the lifespan is double that, he added, assuming the vehicles have been properly configured for the department using them.

But, Brown said, mileage doesn’t paint a true picture of the wear and tear on an ambulance because ambulances have a lot of “hard braking” and “high idling,” which takes a toll on the engine.

“You have to look at engine hours with cumulative miles to get a truer picture of the wear and tear, and lifespan of an ambulance,” Brown said.

Patch editor Lyssa Beyer contributed to this report.

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